Friday, July 15, 2011

Review: Earth Defense Force Insect Armageddon

Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360

Vicious Cycle

Publisher: D3Publisher of America

# of Players 1 - 2 (online: 2 - 6)

ESRB Rating: T (Teen)

Official Site

Score: B+

The bugs are back and badder then before thanks to developer Vicious Cycle and D3Publisher of America. Earth Defense Force Insect Armageddon manages to be a leaner, meaner, faster and in a few way, better game than its predecessor thanks to tweaks to the run 'n gun formula that streamlines the number of missions yet enhances the gameplay. Controls are tight, the action is more reasonably paced (initially) for new players and for the most part, the addition of online play is not bad at all. Some gamers whose experience with this budget series began with EDF 2017 (and those who seem to think the game ONLY appeared on the 360) might find nit-picky faults with some elements of EDFIA. However, those of us who've been around since the series debut on the Japanese PlayStation 2 and/or love original developer Sandlot's work on the franchise now have a new dev team to moon over because they've taken the gameplay and refined it for a just as fun (and at times, more fun) to play experience.

What's here is now online enabled for up to three in co-op and up to six in the all new (and insanely challenging) Survival Mode. Have no online friends or hate dealing with creeps and idiots or finding time to play with friends or random strangers? Well, grab a buddy and an extra controller for some classic couch co-op. Solo players can tackle Campaign or Campaign Remix modes with or without two AI partners or a Trooper-only Survival mode offline which is intensely more challenging to play any way you tackle it thanks to the fact that you WILL die at some point and you can't use any of your leveled up characters in this mode. While this might seem like a bad idea, it's just a throwback to the old days of classic arcade games such as Berserk or Robotron.

Four character classes are playable as different armor types: Jet, Battle, Trooper and Tactical, each with their own pros and cons. The game is designed so that you'll absolutely have to play through the brief campaign many, many times with each armor class in order to max out their levels and unlock every weapon. While good players can blow through the Campaign on Normal in about six hours (or less if you're a superstar!), you won't see every ending until you beat the game on Hard and Inferno (and you most certainly can't unlock/afford to buy all 300+ weapons by playing each stage ONLY once). Before you even ask, NO, you can't simply play the last level on each difficulty and unlock all the Achievements and bonuses for the other modes. That's the lazy way to get things done in ANY game, so it's a damn good thing Vicious Cycle makes you work really hard for that forty bucks you just spent.

Like previous EDF games, there's a bare bones story spread throughout the mission-based gameplay that involves a strike team sent in to deal with an invading alien force that consists of mutated Earth insects, giant robots, flying ships and a few surprises. Instead of Japan or London, this time the action takes place in a fictional New Detroit that mixes in a handful of urban maps set during different times of the day. Sure, there are no beachfront assaults or tight underground tunnels here and like every other EDF game, don't expect to see an actual subway train on those elevated tracks or anything resembling moving traffic. Of course, attempting to apply ANY arbitrary rules of reality to a video game is a losing proposition, but you can't stop the nitpickers who should know better...

As in EDF 2017 (as well as the other EDF games), the story is told mostly through radio chatter as well as mission directives you received while playing. EDFIA's plot adds a bit more urgency to the narrative by sending your Lightning Team on a few thankless search missions that end up as massive battles where the series' trademark destruction and large scale battles get the VCS treatment. I won't mention the endings at all except to say the doors are wide open for a sequel that takes place right afterward and hopefully, will reward players with save data from this game with some sort of advantage (or even better, a different way and story angle with which to finish the fight).

The big differences in visuals is mostly aesthetic while storytelling gets a slightly more linked narrative that ties the missions together. Sandlot's EDF games had a great kaiju charm to them that while supremely cool to look at, didn't quite make sense in terms of presenting a "future" setting. Their EDF games were set a few years from now, but all of them looked like a sci-fi movie from 1957 (yes, before many of its more vocal fan base were even born!) EDFIA's more modern look and updated gameplay elements work a bit better overall, provided you get over your lust for 2017's giant lizards and retro robots stomping around raising hell in some of that game's more memorable moments. The bigger bosses here might initially be less impressive to some, but on Normal Mode with some not so hot weapons, expect to spend some quality time taking them down.

A huge change from the original formula is how drops are handled. in the older EDF games, ALL weapons dropped randomly and you had to either "farm" tougher levels for good gear or hope you got what you wanted (which was rare). Here, you buy weapons with points accumulated through destroying enemies and completing mission objectives. One concession to the old games is that bosses will often drop random special weapons, but you'll often be grabbing gear your armor class can't use. While this might seem weird, all those unlocked weapons are added to your tally of unlockable ordinance. There are 107 random weapons to find and 300+ total for all the classes combined. As noted above, you'll need to to a lot of replaying on each difficulty mode in order to grab everything.

Some might disagree with the Americanization of their "favorite" series, but (duh) not only does the game take place in the U.S. of A., it was made here by folks who know what they were going for with the visuals and gameplay when they took on the project. That and it's almost always a bad thing when any developer tries too hard to copy a look made popular by an older game (or worse, tries to emulate Japanese pop culture but fails). The new look to the aliens here also goes a long way in updating EDF to a more menacing game experience at times. Yes, the intentionally cheesy one liners tossed off by your AI buddies are still in effect, so expect to hear a few howlers as well as a few groaners. In terms of enemy count, while the overwhelming waves of doom coming at you in previous games is gone, it's been replaced with something I think works even better. Enemies now spawn all around you at set points during missions often in a few different types just to keep you on your toes. Many maps start you off on streets littered with destructible objects or it tight spots where you can get overwhelmed if you don't clear out some breathing (and running) room.

The deadly yet methodically stomping Hectors from 2017 (which replaced the more primitive-looking tripods and stilt-legged robots from EDF 2) are now sleeker, faster running back type nightmares that can catch up to you in a few seconds once they start running. Standard ants and spiders from the old games get their ranks boosted with tougher metal versions and there are some new enemies that can make your onscreen life hell if you get caught up in their attacks. Exploding ticks (and their nasty, pulsating mommies), Giant metal Mantises Attacking from every angle, car-tossing Spiders and Wasps, oh my! Some of the crazier battles will have you dealing with multiple threats including acid spray, lasers of a few different types, spider webbing and more. In terms of destruction, EDFIA adds a lot more debris and destructible objects in its maps than 2017 did, although it would have been nice to have a bit more in the way of real estate that could be reduced to rubble in some maps where certain buildings are immune to the most powerful guns.

A few changes are slightly problematic, but definitely not game killers. The new radar system only shows where bugs initially appear and acts like a sonar of sorts, showing enemies as they appear before fading out . While adding a bit more challenge, it's a lot less helpful than the old radar that let you know where masses were coming from constantly. As noted, you don't get the same huge enemy counts here and the manner in which enemies appear is different, but the swarm factor more than makes up for it. The new red border around each level is a nice visual touch, but as someone who can read a map well enough to know when to make a turn and run left or right away from danger, I found it a bit distracting. It would have been cool to have options for the old style radar as well as the ability to turn the borders off, but I'll just suggest that to VCS for the next game rather than whine about patching this one.

One of the problems from 2017 rears its ugly head in the form of the occasional pickup that can't be reached. This time out they're ones that fall behind the red map borders. Of course, the solution for THAT problem is to try and kill bugs or 'bots before they get to that point, as opposed to 2017, where anything that fell atop (or got stuck in) a rock formation was forever unreachable no matter what you did. I'd suggest VCS add some sort of auto pickup system for out of reach drops to either a patch or the next game. There are some minor technical issues in the game such as the occasional freeze when playing for extended periods of time and some other more minor stuff, but none are game killers.

Online play has a few hitches, but overall is a VERY welcome addition when you've a great connection and everyone plays nice. As usual for any online shooter, dropped matches and some chug can hinder an otherwise fun time, but again, the EDF franchise absolutely benefits from this new shot in the arm. As for Survival Mode, online,or off it's fine
and and noted above...YES, you WILL die at some point. Just suck it up and try and get as far as you can. Even though it seems like a GREAT idea to use leveled armor, VCS has INTENTIONALLY crafted this mode to be brutal right from the beginning. Think about it for a second, folks - being able to hop into Survival with a beefed up armor set would make things TOO easy. However, I'll be nice and suggest a compromise: Next time, allow ALL armor classes to play in Survival, but start them off at Level One with new weapons to unlock as stages are cleared.

Both the PS3 and Xbox 360 version look great and control the same, but the 360 game does NOT have a manual. Sony has a policy stating PS3 games have to have them in the case, so if you own both systems and prefer some reading material other than the back of the case, you know which version you have to get. Granted, you CAN download a PDF manual for the 360 version (as well as a 40+ page walk through for the game) online if you need them. Just remember that the no manual thing isn't a mistake at all - it's a cost-cutting move you'll be seeing in MORE games from different publishers soon enough. I'd suggest sticking a manual on the disc like PC games have these days and adding the ability to access it from the pause menu (especially if one can't go online) for the next game, but we'll see what happens with that.

Speaking of online access, as DLC was available from the start and it looks as if more is on the way (as well as some sort of patch to address a few issues), my concern is how these updates and new content will reach those without the ability to access broadband (which is STILL a big issue with a lot of gamers in rural and other areas in the US). Unless D3Publisher is planning some sort of reissue with ALL the content at some point down the road (unlikely for a budget release, but not impossible), those folks who can't get the updates and new content will be left out of the loop. Still, even if you're a lonely sort who can't get PSN or Xbox Live, the couch co-op mode makes the game a MUST buy. Just add a second controller and a friend and you're good to go for hours of bug blasting bliss.

Remember when the summer months meant a drought in terms of fun games? Well, add EDFIA to the pile of awesome stuff that's making folks like me stay indoors far longer than we should. Hell, it's too darn hot to be outside anyway, and blowing up bugs on screen beats swatting mosquitoes on some super-heated beach or picnic anyway. Grab this game and dive in - you'll be coming back for more again and again.

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